Lifting the lid on how a Louis Vuitton trunk is made
Words by Rob Chilton
In a quiet neighbourhood in the northwest suburbs of Paris is one of those typical French blue enamel street signs bearing the address Rue Louis Vuitton. EDGAR visited the family home of the famous trunk maker and toured the modern-day workshop to discover 164 years of design history
Today the brand Louis Vuitton is the epitome of sophistication, luxury and glamour, but when it began in the 1850s it was founded on hard work, blisters and sweat. In 1837 an ambitious 16-year-old named Louis Vuitton walked from his home in eastern France to Paris, keen to find his fortune amid the Industrial Revolution. He became a box maker and packer, creating trunks for high society to transport their precious belongings on voyages. Vuitton had a knack for it and quickly gained a reputation. In 1854 he opened his own shop and four years later hit upon the revolutionary idea of manufacturing flat-topped trunks that went against the conventional curved designs.
Street sign in Asnieres, a northeast Paris suburb
Competition was fierce with more than 60 trunk makers in Paris alone. But Vuitton’s experience as a box packer, carefully ferrying silverware, linens and crinoline dresses of wealthy women meant he was one step ahead of his rivals. His trunks were strong and robust but also light, while his clever and complex anti-pick clasps with five tumblers inside were nicknamed Houdini locks.
Louis Vuitton workshop, circa 1880
Business boomed and in 1859 Vuitton expanded to an atelier on Rue du Congrès in Asnières, about 8km from central Paris. In 1999, the street would be renamed Rue Louis Vuitton in recognition of his work. Situated on the banks of the River Seine, the location enabled Vuitton to receive the wood on barges that he needed to make his desired trunks. His work was so admired that he had to create his now famous Damier check with ‘Louis Vuitton’ printed in the squares to deter counterfeiters. This was shocking to the luggage industry as, unlike today, having a brand name on the outside of luggage was considered vulgar. Years later, in 1896, Louis’ son Georges invented the LV monogram (imagine what high society made of that) which has never been touched since.
Winning the custom of the Empress of France, Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III, propelled Vuitton to the major leagues and in 1914, he opened the doors to an enormous, five-storey shop at number 70 Champs Elysees in central Paris (you can still see the sign today). The growth of train travel meant people were now taking weekend breaks and needed leather holdalls; the Vuitton brand also started to make small leather goods for women to carry lipstick, all of which led Louis Vuitton to change its business model and set the company on a new path to where it stands today.
Thierry de Longevialle has been with Louis Vuitton 29 years and is the director of the brand’s museum and house. EDGAR spoke to him in the tranquil garden outside LV’s stunning Art Nouveau family home in Asnières. Right next door to the house is the modern steel and glass workshop where trunks and bags are still made today.
The Vuitton family home in Asnieres stands next to the workshop
Sadly, the Louis Vuitton archive, with its 165,000 documents and 25,000 products of historical importance, is off-limits. But Thierry walks us round the home that is filled with historical memorabilia and, later, the workshop where an army of trunk makers carry on Louis’ legacy and carefully hammer nails into pieces of wood. Next to them are lines of brightly-lit workbenches staffed by craftspeople attaching straps to bags that will eventually find their way onto the shoulders of stylish women.
Louis Vuitton's employees in 1888
“We are trunk makers,” says de Longevialle. “The trunks we make today always have handles, they are not furniture. Trunks are the heritage of the brand, the DNA, the roots.” And, much like 2018, it all started with Louis Vuitton himself, at his workbench, getting his hands dirty, making boxes.